Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
On January 6th 1941 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union Message to Congress and the nation. I spent the time to both both read it and listen to it the other day. It is a profoundly moving speech, not without controversy of course, but one which we need to hear again. It is a speech that like the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a Dream speech calls us to higher ideals, ideals that we often come up short in living up to, but ideals worth living for and to endeavor to attain in our lifetime.
When Roosevelt spoke the nation was in the midst of crisis. The United States was still recovering from the Great Depression. War threatened as Hitler’s Nazi German legions had overrun all of Western Europe and much much of North Africa. German U-Boats and surface ships were prowling the North Atlantic. Britain stood alone between Germany’s complete domination of Europe. Even the Soviet Union, a mortal enemy of Fascism had concluded a concordat with Hitler to divide Eastern Europe. Though no one yet knew it, Hitler was already planning to break his accord with Stalin and invade the Soviet Union.
In it Roosevelt made a comment that we should remember in light of the knowledge that Russia interfered in our election, and has been working tirelessly to split us from our allies and directly working against our efforts to fight ISIS, and the efforts of our soldiers in Afghanistan. He noted:
“I suppose that every realist knows that the democratic way of life is at this moment being directly assailed in every part of the world — assailed either by arms or by secret spreading of poisonous propaganda by those who seek to destroy unity and promote discord in nations that are still at peace.”
Roosevelt’s speech, which largely focused on the threat of Nazi Germany, also supported Britain and the exiled governments of nations conquered by Hitler. As he outlined preparations to defend the United States, Roosevelt also called on Congress to pass Lend Lease to help those fighting the dictators, as well as increased opportunity at home. In response to the emerging threats and the unwillingness of some, including a strong pro-Germany lobby headed by prominent senators, American aviation hero Charles Lindberg, and and big business, Roosevelt challenged Americans to face up to them. He noted:
“As a nation we may take pride in the fact that we are soft-hearted; but we cannot afford to be soft-headed. We must always be wary of those who with sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal preach the “ism” of appeasement. We must especially beware of that small group of selfish men who would clip the wings of the American eagle in order to feather their own nests.”
On the domestic front Roosevelt reiterated the message of the New Deal, for even with war looming he did not want to see Americans lost in the exchange and he linked freedom abroad to the same at home. He noted:
“As men do not live by bread alone, they do not fight by armaments alone. Those who man our defenses and those behind them who build our defenses must have the stamina and the courage which come from unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending. The mighty action that we are calling for cannot be based on a disregard of all the things worth fighting for.”
“Certainly this is no time for any of us to stop thinking about the social and economic problems which are the root cause of the social revolution which is today a supreme factor in the world. For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy.
The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment — The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.”
But the real heart of the message, applicable to all people everywhere Roosevelt enunciated a number of principles that are a beacon to all people. Firmly grounded in words of the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address they are called the Four Freedoms. Those freedoms are an ideal, in fact they certainly were not practiced well then by Americans, nor now, but they are worth working to: Roosevelt said:
“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.
The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.
The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.
That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”
The speech was important, and now as it did then it calls Americans to higher purposes, to higher ideals, and it recognizes that we have never fully measured up to our own words. At the time it was spoken, Jim Crow was still the law of the land, Mexican Americans were often treated as poorly as blacks, Native Americans had few rights; and barely a year later Japanese Americans would be taken from the homes, lose their business and be sent to detention camps for the duration of the war after Pearl Harbor, simply because they were of Japanese descent. But those abiding principles are things that we should never lose sight of, and always strive to realize.
Today the four freedoms that Roosevelt enunciated are under threat around the world and in the United States too. We live in an age of uncertainty, turbulence, division, inequity, as well as deeply ingrained cynicism. Unscrupulous authoritarian politicians are using that uncertainty and fear to roll back the very liberties that democratic institutions are founded on.
As a result, as a man who promised during his campaign to roll back the rights of many people it is important not to forget this speech. The same is true as state and local politicians set out to not only roll back the rights of some, but to enable religious people to discriminate against other citizens.
It is also important because the government of Russia led efforts to attack the country by influencing the election, and for years has been committing aggression against American allies and working against American and allied efforts around the world. Yet the the incoming administration is not only welcoming it, but attacking and trying to discredit the American intelligence officials who say that it happened, and condemning senators and congressmen of its own party who want to further investigate those attacks by Russia and impose sanctions.
So I think that it is important to reflect on these events, and then turn to speeches like Roosevelt’s in order for us to strive for a higher purpose, not to lose hope, and give in to fear that would enable our freedoms and the freedoms of any citizen to be curtailed.
If you can please that the time to listen to it or read it at the following link: http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fdrthefourfreedoms.htm